I close my eyes, picturing train rides, traveling in a time where it felt like distance wasn’t virtual. It was a family event, a time to slow down, to catch up – how have you been? Maybe because I associate distance with family as we grew up in different places, being one family in a train car was a privilege I didn’t take lightly – coming from parents who were more accustomed to being packed like sardines before the comforts they afforded me. Station to station, vendors would come on board to announce cutlets, jhalmuri (puffed rice), chana, and other snacks.
In this family though, my mom had a habit of being prepared – out came the litti and in a little pot, some chokha. Two of them, and you could easily fall asleep with a full belly. Some train rides were a day, a lot of them were more than a couple – how did they not spoil? As much as I craved the whimsy of spending money on those trips at the time, these days I just hope I can recreate the magic. The versatility of these pucks of sattwa or sattu (gram lentil flour) remind me of our resourcefulness, one that predates us.
SO WHAT IS IT?
From fire pits made of cow dung chips (goitha) to now being baked in our ovens or tava, this dish becomes an icon for folx that know of it as a representative of ‘Bihari’ cuisine. Litti and chokha is a combination of discs of dough cooked with a spiced chickpea mixture paired with a smoky eggplant mash. Relished with ghee, it can be easily substituted with just some chutney and chokha while being cooked with oil to make it vegan as well.
I think the use of fresh green chilies, red onions, and lots and lots of cilantro give modern touches. We should recognize satwa which grounded it as a nomadic stable. The ability to stay edible through hot and sometimes humid weather.
Ancient History tangent..
I carry this dish with me like my ancestors, within surges of fires and power grids being unstable, food spoiling is still a concern. Ruminating on the utility Litti provides and how its been absorbed at large within India’s cuisine also questions its past.
Origins swirl around food – there are so many different points of exchange. Maurya Empire under Magadh from 6th to 8th century BC is one of seven major kingdoms that are attributed with influence over Indus Valley.
Baati was originally a staple in this empire, which is much like litti except using more water in its dough without any water and served dipped in daal (lentils) which continues to be a favorite in Rajasthan. However as battallions discovered sattu, from what is now Tibet, there was a pivot to Litti. They could cover it in sand to cook without having to worry about lentils to fill them up (sattu took the place of it within the dough)
As new kingdoms came, the dish would be repurposed between battle and royal delicacy. During the Mughal period, emperors were served Littis with payas and shorbas. For a brief moment after Mughal empire, was the dawn of the Maratha Samaj before the British were starting their bid. It never ceases to amuse me how often folx will flirt via the kingdom they identify with and imagining which scenarios they were raiding my village. Alas for these failed suitors, we have a history of being strong leads.
The Battle You saw Coming
Rebels virtually survived on Litti during the Mutiny of 1857 rejecting British rule. The story goes that Rani Lakshmi Bai, chose it as their food to complement strategies that kept them in the cover of jungles and ravines. With the danger of their homes being reduced to rubble ever present, Lakshimibai would often go into battle with her child. People often marvel at the last escape Lakshimibai would make in the battle of Jhansi’s fort, how was she able to accomplish it?
In the shadows but always at her side was our Dalit Warrior Queen, Jhalkaribai. She remained a prominent advisor since the moment they met, whether it was Litti strategies to sacrificing her life to provide Jhansi ki Rani one last escape — her story remains for us to elevate because we fought like one.
A CURIOUS CASE OF SATWa..
Its a wonder how Litti Chokha became to be recognized as homogenous to being Bihari. Sattu went from food for battle to the lifeline that nourished folx while governments were apathetic during famines dubbed ‘protein of the poor’. What was once a symbol of freedom was no longer allowed in temples.
Timelines can become blurry. If we go through the categorizations laid into us, divided into Bhojpuris, Maithils, and Magadhis. We can see ways in which the old empire’s dishes might have made its way. Post partition, Bhojpuri community saw the ways we were divided as laborers across Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and before that to Fiji, Guyana, and other parts of the Caribbean and South Africa. Perhaps this is where the sentiment of “Bihari Bikhari” began.
Zooming out, in the Quran we see it as saweeq which would be mixed with dates, in Odisha its often called chatua and made for breakfast, in Punjab sattu is used with jaggery, and in Fiji/Guyana called satwa. It was something my nani would reach for out of habit, often making it her only meal as she made sure everyone was fed. In many ways its satwa we’re highlighting in this dish that we all had access to as we spanned borders, religions, and caste. Modi, can you understand why your identity politics are flawed now?
Displaced from our abundant forests, ways of language and fitting in were derived in plantations and mining. Colonies as they were called, were being set up to accommodate the villages that were being ‘developed’.
For folx who were still in the mainland, a lot found themselves in steel plants. In them, people found ways to share themselves and perhaps this multiculturalism happened due to partition as folx from Bengal, Punjab, Nepal, Odisha, Bihar, and Assam found themselves under one roof. Circulating cuisines that were less known before and creating acceptance. Seeing my family dispersed through the world, I have a deeper appreciation of why home was complex and the ways we’re still trying to find one another.
Cook time: 1 hour Feeds 4
|2 cups flour|
1/2-1 cup warm water
pinch of salt
|2 cups eggplant|
1/2 cup tomatoes
3-4 cloves garlic
|Sattu or kala channa|
kilonji or onion seeds
ajwain or caraway seeds
cloves of garlic
mango or chili achar (pickle)
salt to taste (prefer rock salt)
|2-3 Green chilies |
1/2 cup onion
pinch cumin (optional)
1 tbsp tahin (optional)
1/2 tbsp lemon juice
salt to taste
LET’S GET COOKING! Game Plan:
We have three components to this dish: atta (the dough), sattu (chickpea flour filling), and the chokha (mash, in this case of eggplant). I’ll explain each individual with its set of instructions but in order to maximize your time, this is how I like to order my flow.
- Make the dough first as it needs to be set aside to cool and lose some of its elasticity.
- Warm your water to a bit above lukewarm, it helps with digesting. Sift the flour.
- Add a pinch of salt and slowly incorporate the water until you can work with the dough.
- Knead until incorporated and finish it with a few drops of oil so its easier to work with. Use a damp towel to cover and set it in the fridge to rest.
- Then go ahead and grill or your eggplant or broil it for the chokha (10-15 mins).
- You can grill or broil the eggplant, I do a combination of charring it on the stovetop and broiling it. I pretend the smoky flavor emulates the smoky pit these eggplants would usually be on. So take the eggplant and let it rest on the flames for a minute all around.
- Place on tray with tomatoes and garlic. Spray with oil and add a pinch of salt of your preference. Make a couple slits in the eggplant with a knife so it cooks through evenly. Broil this for 10-15 minutes depending on the size of your veggies.
- While the dough is cooling and the eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic are cooking, make the sattu filling.
- If you’re making fresh sattu, take roasted kala channa and pulse into a fine powder. Otherwise, keep your pack of sattu ready.
- Mince your vegetables: onion, chili, garlic, ginger, and cilantro. I go a bit heavy on the garlic and chili for my own palette, so feel free to play with the ratios.
- Add in kilonji, ajwain, and salt. I like to break up some of the solids in the achar for that unexpected bite. I think its interesting that our cuisine already anticipates for digestion with the addition of the ajwain which is an agent that curbs heartburn and gasiness.
- Add moisture with the lemon, achar, and a drizzle of mustard oil. The mixture should be crumbly with a hint of moisture.
4. ASSEMBLING LITTI:
- – putting together the dough and filling while you wait for the veggies to cool. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Take the dough and make small flattened discs. Taking one of the pucks, flatten it within your hands with the edges remaining a little thicker for when you seal it.
- Use a spoonful of the mixture and lay it in the middle, crimp along the edges. I think crimping and sealing is always seen as this craftsmanship that needs to be about becoming an expert. I think what I love about litti is that its about portability. You want to seal it so the stuffing doesn’t fall out, so when you cook it with fire, it holds. We don’t have to complicate or worry about the aesthetic.
- You can shape it a bit after if you’re worried but otherwise you’re good to go into the oven after you cover them lightly with oil (if you’re making it vegan) or ghee.
- Bake them for 20-25 minutes total (flipping between 10-12).
- Make the chokha while the litti bakes (20-25 mins, flip halfway through)
- Take the broiled and cooled eggplant, garlic and tomatoes to peel. You want to take the skin off of everything to create a creamy more homogenous texture.
- Chop up the onion, cilantro, and chilies
- Stress reliever break, take any sort of masher and get to work! Fold in the veggies and mash them a bit as well to release and mesh the flavors.
- I like to finish up with cumin, lemon juice, and tahin. Although the tahin is a tangent from the original recipe, I like to echo the flavors found in babha ghanoush as these dishes have parallels.
- Garnish with cilantro or chilies and serve with your piping hot litti! The combination complements perfectly.
Once you’re done, you can dip them in more ghee or chokha!
Our experiences as a diaspora can vacillate in either the alienation because of the ways we couldn’t assimilate or when we did, we lost our way. Surprisingly, you could say it is a struggle that we share with folx from the homelands for some time. Litti Chokha is iconic, hopefully also for sparking questions of a complex history we’re unraveling so that we can continue questioning the type of policies that attempt to remove people from their homes.
As we try to find the patience and collaboration thats needed in these times, I hope this can be an addition to your tool belt. Take care friends! Please tag #whatiscurry, would love to see your interpretations <3